Would they really spend their lives watching the street from inside their portraits?

Dear Norah,

People in the Room (2018, tr. Charlotte Whittle. Original: Personas en la sala, 1950) is a slow exercise in estrangement: when we least expect, we find ourselves trapped inside the frame of the narrator’s gaze.

Our unnamed narrator is a seventeen-year-old girl who spends her time spying on three mysterious, nameless women who live in the house across the street. She is haunted by their ghostly faces hovering through the window. The portrait of the three pale-faced Brontë sisters, painted by their brother Branwell (who erased himself and left his ghostly outline in the painting), immediately came to my mind, even before I had found out that the inspiration for this novel came from that portrait. It’s uncanny.

 After weeks of obsessing about the three women, the narrator contrives a way to visit their house. She spends many evenings sitting with the women, hearing their fragmentary talk, and imagining their stories, as if probing around in the dark for a clue on their lives. Or so it seems. Perhaps our narrator is only hallucinating, imagining she is visiting them, or creating a story in her head.

Perhaps her obsession has grown inside of her, like some sort of parasite. We don’t know. She has only a partial view of the events – or, at least, that’s all she is willing to offer us: small things – a spider, a blue dress, a telegram, a portrait on the wall -, which seem to assume a determining nature we don’t quite understand. They are loose threads on a pattern that makes no sense but is nonetheless mesmerizing: like trying to paint a gothic novel with a modernist brush.

Nothing much happens, and our protagonist rarely steps beyond her house. But it is precisely this no-thing-land that starts to grow inside her: as if the narrator, unable to expand outside of the confined margins of her house and her life, were carving an expansion from the inside, in a distorted, disturbing way. She seems to be building a universe very much like a novelist writes a book, trying and discarding different threads, in search of a story that continues to elude her, like a dream she has just woken up from and cannot quite remember.

She goes to visit the three women, and everyone behaves as if in a trance. When she talks about them, we don’t know whether she is watching them from her window, or whether she is in their room with them.

Some images and events repeat themselves, and we don’t quite know how to separate fact and imagination, as if life events had been mirrored in a recurrent dream (or had been trapped by it). Is our protagonist really getting to know the three women? Or is she conjuring them in her mind? How much of her stalking is a way of taking possession? Does she desire to know the trio, to belong to them, or to destroy them? Is she about to become that which she has created? We don’t know.

The protagonist develops a particular obsession with the eldest sister, whom she paints sometimes as a spinster, sometimes as a murderer. Our protagonist imagines different versions of the eldest sister’s life, but this mysterious woman remains evasive. Being the object of an obsession is claustrophobic, perhaps she wants to remain a stranger. Or maybe the narrator is the one who does not want to lose the allure of the unknown that had driven her to that mysterious woman in the first place.

To make matters more complicated, the narrator often sees the eldesty sister as a double of herself: she even recognises her own voice, after hearing the woman speak. At some point, the two seem to become interchangeable. They are anonymous, they are everywoman, they are no one. They have no name. Maybe our narrator has a split personality; maybe she is creating an imaginary friend; or maybe she is in love with an older woman who lives across the street. Maybe she just wants to be seen.

The three sisters are always sitting in the same room, barely moving, framed by the window like figures in a painting, compelled to leave the shutters open, and compelled to be watched. “We never close the curtains. We’re of no interest to anyone.” But the interest is in the eye of the beholder, and the narrator gradually draws us into her painting, her obsession, her claustrophobic imagination. Everyone is somehow trapped here – the sisters, in a meaningless existence; the narrator, in her invisibility; the reader, in this voyeuristic game of blurred images, uncanny photographs, and distorted mirrors.

Like Branwell’s role in his portrait of his sisters, the narrator is constantly inserting herself inside the painting, only to erase herself from it a while later. Like Branwell, the narrator is the blur inside the frame: we only know she exists because she is the voice painting the story – a disembodied but all-seeing I/ Eye, a void around which the book is written: “I alone, verifying the essential, I alone with my gaze.” She sees; therefore, she is – and we cannot quite point our fingers at the point where the observer begins and the observed ends.

Yours truly,

J.


The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë) by Patrick Branwell Brontë, oil on canvas, circa 1834.

“She seemed to possess many portraits, as if constantly adding them to the hidden gallery of her own face; as if arranging, on the four walls of the drawing room, in order, the story of her face.” People in the Room, by Norah Lange


About the book

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